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GOOD LAWMAKERS LEAVING

GOOD LAWMAKERS LEAVING

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Sharon Thompson is expected to tell reporters today that she won't be running for a third term in the state House. Despite two successful tours and a good chance at re-election, the citizen-legislator from Durham will settle for becoming just another citizen.

Why would a politician generally considered a rising star in the General Assembly want to give it all up?Not because she's a quitter. In her two terms as a state representative, Thompson has earned a reputation as a level-headed advocate of liberal causes. She has been a loyal supporter of abortion rights and fought for equity in the state's tax laws.

The issues are popular in her Durham district, where she enjoys broad support. Thompson probably isn't withdrawing because she's worried about losing.

So what's the rub?

Speculation is that Thompson will quit because she can't spare the time demanded by an increasingly complex state government. Her small law practice suffered from her absence during the last session of the General Assembly, which lasted eight months and gave birth to 799 new laws.

There is little reason to doubt those rumors. The decision certainly has nothing to do with her party or politics.

Near the August conclusion of the 1989 legislative session, Rep. Trip Sizemore, a staunchly conservative Republican from Guilford County, made a similar announcement. Long hours tending to the state's affairs left him no time for his family and regular job.

Sizemore was often Thompson's political opposite on the House floor, but their cases are strikingly similar. He had served three terms and is widely considered a promising GOP leader.

In a House leadership shake-up last year, Sizemore won a committee chairmanship after proving himself on the House floor. He refused to shrink whether fighting for more open government or bucking the governor's call for a tax increase. But when it came to his livelihood and family Sizemore had to draw the line.

Is this weakness? Perhaps, but it is clearly a flaw in the system rather than in individuals. Thompson and Sizemore are not the only two legislators who have been forced out by the increasingly unreasonable demands of state office.

Legislative sessions are too long to be considered part-time. And the job continues past the session's end. Even after adjournment, lawmakers have committee meetings to attend and constituents to look after.

When the stresses of public service begin to force out the best young legislators and restrict holding office to the wealthy or retired, reform is clearly in order.

Conventional wisdom offers two solutions. Either pay for a full-time legislature or limit the length of each session.

Thompson favors the latter. Raising her salary would not offset the time she loses from her business, she says. She notes that other state legislatures - such as Georgia's - face similar problems as North Carolina's, yet handle them in a much shorter time.

The growing complexity of issues may argue for a full-time body, but Thompson believes assigning each lawmaker a year-round staff person could make the burden manageable. As it stands, legislators lose their staff when the session ends. The savings realized in shorter sessions could balance out the cost.

North Carolina should hold on to a part-time legislature as long as possible for sound philosophical reasons as well. The strength of a citizen legislature lies in its perspective. Legislators whose primary work lies outside government are more likely to maintain a broader vision of government's role.

But lawmakers who must earn a living outside the statehouse are the very ones being jettisoned by the current system. Before North Carolina loses all its best leaders, the system ought to be changed.

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